Ken Tucker
June 03, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Shot in the Heart

Current Status
In Season
Nonfiction, Memoir,

We gave it an A

At one point in this remarkable book, writer Mikal Gilmore recounts his first memory of his older brother Gary. In the early 1950s, Gary came home from a lengthy stay in reform school, and Mikal, a mere toddler at the time, didn’t recognize him. When Mikal asked, “Who’s that?” his mother said, “That’s your brother Gary.” And then she continued, jokingly, “We’ve kept him buried out back next to the garage for a while. We finally got around to digging him up.”

“For years afterward,” Gilmore writes, “that’s how I thought of Gary: as somebody who had been buried in my family’s backyard and then uncovered.”

<p.This is indeed the same Gary Gilmore who became an American celebrity when he was executed at the age of 36 in 1977 for murder; the same Gilmore about whom Norman Mailer wrote The Executioner’s Song (1979); the same Gilmore whom Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in the 1982 TV movie of that book. Now, in Shot in the Heart, Mikal, a longtime rock-music journalist, tells the story of Gary as well as the rest of his troubled family, and lets us know what it feels like to be the brother of a person whose fate, Mikal came to believe, “was finished [when] my parents conceived him.”

Growing up in the Northwest with hard-drinking, lower-middle-class parents, Gary, Mikal, and their two other brothers suffered varying degrees of physical abuse at the hands of their father, Frank. “When I think of what my brothers went through almost every week of their childhood and young adolescence,” says Mikal, “the only thing that surprises me is that they didn’t kill someone when they were still children.”

Gary, Mikal asserts, got the worst of it, and “it was as if, for the rest of his life, [Gary] would be reenacting the drama of his father’s punishments with every authority figure he encountered.” Hardened by beatings as a youth, Gary grew into a cold, cynical adult whose crimes quickly escalated from petty burglaries to sadistic killings.

The great achievement of Shot in the Heart is that Mikal has taken an event most of us remember as tawdry media exploitation — which climaxed with Gary’s request to be shot by a firing squad — and profoundly changed its meaning. The book is a sustained meditation on what a family is — how it shapes its members, and how those members resist shaping. At the same time, Shot is in no way an apologia for Gary’s actions-near the end of the book, Mikal admits, “I guess I decided that Gary was better off dead.”

Written with a beautiful calmness in the lean prose of a first-rate detective novel, Shot in the Heart is as much Mikal’s story as it is Gary’s. He is telling us what it means to carry the burden of a loved one’s evil deeds for the rest of one’s own life. A

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